Wednesday, May 22, 2019

More on proprioception


More from John Jerome's book, Stone Work, on the subject of proprioception. Page 148 

Wading on through fallen leaves, I make one more small mental obeisance to proprioception, to the entire sensory universe that gives me a self to take out for walks like this. My head tells me this is true – that the sense are where the self comes from – but it is a touch too psychological, and therefore fuzzy, for my tastes. I’m more comfortable with the harder edges of physiology and physics. Ah, that’s it: proprioception is where physics and physiology come together. That must be why it fascinates me so. It’s the tool that helps you get the physics right, the means by which you get the pleasure out of physics. It is the internal rigging that locates the body in time and space, the three-dimensional internal map of the body that redraws itself, realigns itself, with every move you make.
I’ve been thinking and writing about proprioception for ten years now, in one forum or another, and keep failing to get its wonders adequately set down, the impossible riches brought to us in those mysterious moments when information turns into experience. Can’t find a way to say it hard enough, can’t sing that clear, clean line.

My frustration reminds me of Lewis Thomas’s essay ‘On Embryology’ in The Medusa and the Snail. He is speaking of the process that at some point switches on a single cell and allows it to grow into the brain. ‘No one has the ghost of an idea how this works,’ he says, ‘and nothing else in life can ever be so puzzling. If anyone does succeed in explaining it, within my lifetime, I will charter a skywriting airplane, maybe a whole fleet of them, and send them aloft to write one great exclamation point after another, around the whole sky, until all my money runs out.’

John Jerome on proprioception

Back in the mid-nineties I read at least two books by John Jerome, who was a kind of essayist, but whose essays usually encompassed a whole book. The first, The Writing Trade, was greatly inspirational to me early in my writing 'career.' I enthused over it in my journals. 

The second, which I don't remember a lot about now except that I enjoyed it greatly at the time, was called Stone Work, and basically looked at the issue of building a stone wall. In July 1995 I copied out a shortish section of the book into a journal I was keeping at the time. Here's the extract from round about page 144:


October in the woods is a forced march into the sensory life; I am armed with, let’s see, the capacity to discern shapes, motions, and colours, to perceive smells, hear sounds. I can also touch things, feel their textures, taste them if I dare. But that’s about it, in the way of experiencing the woods. Except, that is, for proprioception, self-sensing, without which I couldn’t get into the woods to enjoy them. Proprioception is the sense that makes the first five work, that fetches pleasure (and pain and everything else) and brings it home to us. It is seldom mentioned except among psychologists, an almost secret capacity that explains a huge part of how we experience the world..

Surgically deafened songbirds were found to sing their songs as well after the surgery as before. (Science can be hideous.) They sing, we must assume, by how the song feels to sing, rather than by how it sounds. (But then any division of the sense is arbitrary. Auditory clicks produce measurable electrical activity in the optic nerve. Are we seeing these clicks? Is the eye hearing them?) To sing by feel rather than sound is to sing by proprioception. The proprioceptors are nerve endings embedded throughout the muscles, tendons, and joints of the body that read and report on relative position of body parts, on movement, loading, acceleration and deceleration. They make the musculoskeletal system the largest sense organ of the body, a receptor as well as an effector. Proprioceptors are the neural devices that weigh and judge and perceive whatever we do with that muscle, from performing eye surgery to hitting high C to levering a two-hundred-pound stone into place in the footing of a wall. They tell us where we are and what we’re doing as we are doing it; they are our connection to the present tense of physical action.

Some of us get very good with our proprioceptors. Those who do are frequently called athletes, or performers. Playing a violin concerto, for example, may be as dazzling a demonstration of proprioceptive capability as man has yet devised. (And oh, by the way, it’s hot in the hall tonight, your fingers will have to rewrite the music to fit the sag of the strings as your performance goes along.) Those of us who don’t get good at proprioception are called spectators.[1]

A group of athletes is asked to rehearse the skills of their sport in their minds alone, without actual movement, while wired to electronic sensors. The sensors indicate that the motionless athletes are actually firing the same muscles, in the same sequence and with the same timing, that they would if they were actually performing the sport. That is, the physical act is in the musculature as well as the mind.

When I do manage to listen to the cries of birds, where I feel it is in my throat – in the place where singing would take place, if I could sing. I can’t fly either, but when I watch bird flight as I do more often than I listen I feel it in my shoulders. I watch with my shoulders. I’m sure that what is so lovely about bird flight is not simply what the optic nerve sends to the brain, but also what the brain sends to the muscle. The flight of birds is so lovely to me precisely because so much more of my sensory capacity is involved than vision. The guitarist listens to music with his fingers. The fingers may not actually be moving, but that’s where the signals are going, are being picked up. I swear it. I’ve watched musicians listening; I’ve seen their fingers twitch.

Proprioception is the connective tissue of the sensory system, the sense that orchestrates the other five, that ties them all together into a coherent representation of the world. It is how one walks, sings, lays stones. It enhances the degree of contact of a kiss. How can we think our pleasures only come through the other five?


Monday, May 13, 2019

Thomas Hardy, the Time-Worn Man

Some time ago I read Thomas Hardy, the Time-Worn Man, by Claire Tomalin. Not the most cheerful or pleasant character, but interesting, and the book is notable for Tomalin's often ironic comments. These are some extracts that I noted at the time. The page numbers refer to the Large Print edition and the sections in italics are my comments. 

Page 100: 
Poor Hardy, suffering pangs of guilt for even thinking of imitating great writers. He needed someone to tell him it is what writers have always done, teaching themselves by imitating what they most admire. [Hardy had used shorthand to hide his suggestions to himself about imitating particular phrases he enjoyed from the works of various poets.]

Page 107 - [Horace Moule (the black sheep of the Moule family, depressed and often alcoholic) wrote to Hardy]
...he sent Hardy some good advice on writing: 'the grand object of all in learning to write well is to gain or generate something to say.' [Italics in original]

page 180 - [Minny Thackeray (the author's daughter) married to Leslie Stephen, the editor of the Cornhill, comments after a small dinner party, about Hardy.] 
'the evening was a wild chaos. I tried to drown my cares in drink but it only affected my feet and not my head. Mr Hardy is a very damp young man and dampness I abominate.' No doubt Hardy was nervous and trying too hard, faced with a daughter of the great Thackeray. Her remark was snobbish: a gentleman is not damp. 

page 210 - [Leslie Stephen writing to Hardy, who'd asked his advice on critical reading]:
...'if you mean seriously to ask me what critical books I recommend, I can only say that I recommend none. I think as a critic that the less authors read of criticism the better. You, e.g., have a perfectly fresh and original vein, and I think that the less you bother yourself about critical canons the less chance there is of your becoming self-conscious and cramped. I should therefore, advise the great writers - Shakespeare, Goethe, Scott, etc, etc, who give ideas and don't prescribe rules.'

page 228 - [Thomas and Emma finally visit his family.] 
Six adult Hardys and Emma in the cottage meant it was crowded, and you can imagine the men going out to look at the garden together to get away from the women's tongues. 

Page 429 - [after one of Hardy's later poetry books was published to little acclaim (the First World War didn't help)]:
In January 1915 Virginia Woolf sent a letter thanking him for the sonnet on her father Leslie Stephen included in the collection, going on to say that she considered it to be 'the most remarkable book to appear in my lifetime.'  Her singularly enthusiastic tribute has to be put in context: a few days after writing she was overtaken by an acute mental breakdown and became incoherent.